Tea With the Knights

Way back in 1974, when we were still getting settled in our family’s new home – i.e. the great metropolis of London – I was contacted by a former colleague of mine when I was on the faculty at Clark University. His name was Gil Markle, a larger-than-life character who was in the Philosophy Department during the years I taught physics at Clark.

The Rolling Stones

Gil was an amazing individual. Besides being a real intellectual (he earned a PhD from Yale), he owned and operated a student travel company in the US called The American Leadership Study Group, ALSG, which rumour had it made him a millionaire in his spare time. Yet, this was but one of the strings to his bow. His most recent venture in the years after we arrived at Clark in 1968 had been to install an ultra-modern recording studio in a large farmhouse he owned outside Worcester, MA where Clark was located. He would host famous bands on the farm, feed them well and allow them to record in the private, salubrious atmosphere of the New England countryside. The Rolling Stones completed one of their early albums at Gil’s farm. Even more sensational was what happened on the day the studio opened . . . the surprise performer was none other than the fabulous Stevie Wonder who made his entrance by helicopter. Landing at the farm, the great R & B singer found a white grand piano waiting for him  on the lush lawn. I think it is fair to say that Gil had a keen sense of the theatrical !

To return to my story . . .

Gil and I left Clark during the same year, 1973. At the graduation exercises that Spring – upon hearing that I was returning to London – Gil mentioned that he might ask me to help him with his student travel company. And so it came to pass. A year later, in the Spring of ’74, I received a telegram . . . yes, a telegram . . . asking if I could handle a group of American students and teachers on a tour through the National Portrait Gallery. The NPG is a very popular museum located near Trafalgar Square which is full of paintings and photographs of important British people, especially the Kings and Queens of England. At the time, I had not even had a chance to visit the gallery. However, with my usual pluck and confidence I agreed to do it. Needless to say, I spent the next week cramming my brain with the history of the English throne. I still remember to this day, over 40 years later, the helpful acronym I learned to recall the Royal Dynasties . . .



I recall the anxiety I felt walking around the NPG as if I were an expert on the British Monarchy. Yet, it must have worked! The evaluations were good enough that Gil soon offered me the position of London Academic Director of his company and THAT changed my future life.

As Academic Director, my duties included a lecture each week on what it was like to be an American family in London during the late 70s-post Vietnam years, including the everyday problems of shopping, eating, learning and entertaining ourselves etc. Generally, mine was a positive report on life in Britain.  I had the advantage of teaming up with another ex-pat: a talented, young woman from Massachusetts who taught at an international school in Europe during term time. She charmed the students with her guitar playing and singing of ‘The Streets of London’ while I showed slides of life in the capital.

Oxford Street at Christmas

Later, the format changed and I took on another role . . . introducing certain British celebrities to the young visitors at a large auditorium in Bloomsbury. Regular speakers were Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet; an English eccentric who told the exact same stories each week and a third speaker who I got to choose myself. I had a budget of £150 for a fee – generous for those days – and decided to invite actors from the London stage. I wanted them to speak about themselves, how they became actors, that sort of thing. It went very well as some of the guests, like Glenda Jackson and Albert Finney were known to the students from films. I even was able to convince the Guardian’s esteemed theatre critic Michael Billington to share his insights with these youngsters.

Colin Blakely with Peter Ustinov

One speaker who intrigued me was the Colin Blakely,a respected British actor who we once saw at the Old Vic as the sole character in a play titled Judgement. In that play, he delivered a 27,000 word monologue about the atrocities of war, yet he was terrified by the prospect of speaking extemporaneously about himself to a group of American high school kids. Strange . . .

After a while, I was having difficulty meeting actors and decided to contact the National Theatre for some help. Sure enough, with such an attractive stipend to offer, I was invited to hang out in the cafeteria at the NT and speak to whoever I pleased. On my very first visit there, I had an exciting experience which still resonates with me today after almost 40 years. Sitting nonchalantly alone at a table having a cup of tea in the crowded, simple eatery, I was soon joined by a gentleman who politely asked to join me. I recognised the voice immediately as that of the classical actor John Gielgud. Within minutes, we were joined by another rather distinguished-looking older man, who I also recognised at once . . . the actor Ralph Richardson.
Well, I certainly had come to the right place!

Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud

I recall only fragments of our conversation. My wife and I had recently seen Gielgud in a successful production of Chekov’s Ivanov in the West End and I nervously mentioned how we had enjoyed the play. With Richardson, I drew a blank. I had never seen him live on stage though I did know of his reputation amongst the giants of the English stage going back to the early days of Lillian Baylis at the Old Vic. I didn’t mention why I was at the National because I wouldn’t dare ask these actors to accept my proposal to speak to students. But the place was buzzing, with actors everywhere.

Just then, a swarthy, middle-aged man took the last seat at our table. He seemed rather presumptuous, as if he was expected . . . which indeed he was. Again, I didn’t need an introduction. It was the playwright, Harold Pinter, who took his seat without saying a word . . . as Pinter does. So, there I was, sipping tea with three greats of the British Theatre: John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Harold Pinter. It was unreal.

Gielgud as Spooner the poet and Richardson as the upper class alcoholic in No Man’s Land

I suppose one needs to ask why these actors were all together in such an unpretentious setting. It turns out to be not so unusual – as Gielgud explained to me. They were about to start rehearsals for a revival of No Man’s Land to be staged at the National in a few week’s time. Gielgud and Richardson had the principal roles and Pinter (who wrote the play) was to direct. However, in spite of the excitement of meeting these accomplished men on this day, there was a certain uncomfortable irony to the moment for me.

Harold Pinter, playwright and Nobel Laureate

First of all, my wife and I had seen the original production of No Man’s Land just a few years before and hated it ! Gielgud and Richardson had created the same roles and Peter Hall directed. However, the play baffled us, as Pinter’s work often does. We came away wondering what it was all about. Naturally, I didn’t bring this up in conversation. Further, I harboured a deep dislike for Pinter for his assumed role as a political pundit – always criticising America – blaming the US for seemingly everything negative that ever happened throughout history. So, I kept my mouth shut ! (Don’t forget, this was in the 70s, long before the era of Donald Trump.)

Nevertheless, this was an unusual incident in my life and deserves to be listed in my Reflections. In retrospect, I have learned to acknowledge the writing of Pinter, his Knighthood (as well as Gielgud and Richardson) and even his Nobel Prize. Yet, I still have not come to grips with his scathing attacks on the United States . . .  as if Britain has a clear conscience in the history of international politics, remembering Ireland in 1845 and India in 1919 !

To finish where I started, I would have to admit that my experience with ALSG and the legendary Gil Markle had much to do with my decision to quit teaching in the early 80s.  I started my own travel company for ex-pat Americans with an emphasis on . . . you guessed it  . . . the London Theatre.